As I approach the end of my counselling training this year, I have also just reached the end of more than a year of my own personal therapy. Although personal growth is a job for life, I left knowing that, for the present, I finished what I went there to do.
So what was my goal? Well, although it wasn’t articulated or planned as such at the beginning of the work, I realised that I had gone into therapy to loosen a lifetime’s grip of shame and criticism which had begun in childhood, and culminated in the car crash ending of my marriage. I finished my counselling at a point where I gained the courage to set some divorce boundaries and literally close the door on my ex-husband.
The things we accept will continue
For the past 6 years he had been coming to my house to spend time with the kids; I had never felt OK with this. At the start it was almost daily, but gradually reduced as his life circumstances changed. I had made significant inroads into setting boundaries, but my ex-husband would push them, arriving at the house increasingly earlier than the agreed time. Back when he first left, he would still come over to eat together as a family, but I found it incredibly uncomfortable and told him I didn’t want to do that anymore. His response was to bring his own food to the house and sit and eat with us. Eventually I asked him to stop that too.
His visits to the house came with his views (frequent and strong) on what I fed the kids; a look inside the cupboards and fridge, voicing his opinions on what was “rubbish”; criticisms of the toiletries we used and the condition of their toothbrushes, how much TV time the kids had; how many chores they did in MY house; how I toilet trained our daughter and how I put her to bed. If they were ever unwell he would question what I was feeding them and tell me what I should be giving them.
Recently he asked me to tell him the “exact doses of paracetamol in milligrams” I’d given my son because, (he helpfully told me), it’s quite easy to over-medicate without realising. To be clear here, I hadn’t changed any aspect of parenting from when we were together. He had become interested in a different way of doing things since leaving and having subsequent children. But now he considered his way to be the only correct way, and I was “arrogant” (his word after one dispute) if I didn’t agree with him.
Wake up call
I was feeling suffocated in my own home; the thought of his weekly visits began to instil a feeling of heaviness and dread. Although direct engagement with him was minimal, having him in my space, and the feeling that my home was not fully my own, was too much. It was easier to withdraw and stay out of his way in my own house, than face more lecturing on how I was doing things wrong; I just wanted to stay in peace downstairs while he spent time with the children. I didn’t want to make small talk or friendly chitchat with him.
But that wasn’t acceptable for him. He told me that my unwillingness to make an effort to rebuild a friendly relationship with him was hurting the kids. He told the children he wanted to be my friend, but that I hated him and that I was angry and inflexible because I was unhappy. (Yes, they told me this, and no, I never said I hated him. Because actually I don’t hate him at all, I just have no interest in being his friend.)
Saying “no” doesn’t make you a bad person
I needed to stop it, but we had set a precedent for the kids that daddy came to the house. I felt torn. My counsellor helped me to identify how and why I was allowing this unacceptable behaviour from my ex-husband. I had spent so long normalising and justifying his behaviour and believing I was unreasonable. I had been telling myself that he just cared for the children, and there is truth to that; he loves them and believes in what he’s saying.
But it took a while to see that there was also a fierce power struggle and a need for him to have things on his terms. It became inevitable that he would have to stop coming to spend time in my home if I was to have peace. So eventually, with a weight of guilt around changing things for the children, I put a stop to it. Now when he visits mid-week, he collects them, takes them for a few hours, drops them home and leaves. The children have adjusted amazingly quickly.
If your boundaries make someone angry, that’s all the more reason to set a boundary
The backlash was inevitable and one of the reasons I put off making the decision for so long. I received an email from him telling me I was bitter, angry, stubborn and stuck in the past. He said I was unkind. He asserted that my life must be deeply unhappy for me to be to continue to judge him on what he did back then.
The irony is that my decision had nothing to do with what he did 6 years ago but everything to do with his behaviour since. I will no longer put up with it. In fact, 6 years ago when I was most angry and in pain, I continued to allow him into my home every day, because I thought it was best for our children. I never let my bitterness or resentment affect his contact or relationship with them, and I am proud of that. It took courage to close the door to him after all this time, but it’s how it should have been years ago.
Our children mean we will always have a connection; correspondence about their lives and plans will carry on as normal. But I moved on from him a long time ago. In fact, it was my ex being in my house that felt stuck in the past.
Connecting with yourself will empower you
This is what I went to counselling to achieve without even knowing it. I attended fortnightly therapy; I didn’t always know what would come up each time, but I was safely held while I raised a host of painful issues spanning 40 years. In those hour-long sessions I released ghosts; conditions of worth; ideas about myself, ideas about others, stuck emotions and unsaid words.
My injustices were witnessed and believed, and my feelings validated. I learned to be accepting and tolerant, but also more boundaried and able to speak up for myself. I was encouraged to be honest about what was my stuff, yet clear about what was most definitely not.
I’m still, and always will be, a work in progress but I am so grateful for the therapist who helped me get to this point. I feel that through this year and a half of work (as therapy undoubtedly is!), I have achieved huge closure. My house feels lighter and I feel freer.